Anne and I were standing on the mezzanine at the San Francisco Symphony admiring the veranda of the cityscape and trying our best to acclimate to the setting. I was looking out toward the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium below. There I spent a few nights of my teenage years going to several Grateful Dead concerts. Well… Grateful Dead absent one Jerry Garci–which arguably was the single most important member of the Grateful Dead. In a way, their official death was his. Now they are just called The Dead. Like the hundreds of Dead Head cover bands jamming out around the nation, I could go on…
I saw him, my former self, swaggering through the trashy plaza with his jean jacket, corduroy pants, and moccasins, and I wondered if in some other metaphysical lane we met eyes and grinned at the absurdity of our current stations. As if me and my former self, in this multi-dimensional bridging of time, were old friends who once played together, running barefoot through endless springtime fields. One of us is a soldier in the garrisons while the other leads a life of royalty.
I raised my glass that direction just in case this could ever be true. He maybe had done the same with a pair of tweezers gripping the “roach” of a joint. What a long strange trip it’s been, man…
Anne asked a couple to take a photograph of us as I was trying to conjure the best word for the occasion: Bedizen? Ostentatious? Ornate? Gaudy? Festooned? Festoon always reminded me of chickens for some reason. Despite our best efforts to dress for the garish affair, a quick valuation of the footwear within our proximity would’ve paid for three months worth of our rent. In the photograph, Anne looked like the charming debutant at a soiree. I had the panicking eyes of her pet festooned chicken.
“Fetch me a cocktail, my dear,” Anne requested in a British accent. I remained standing, trying to find some illicit behavior in the apartment buildings across the street. It was a monolith of glass and in the reflection was a tsunami of fog rolling over Grandview Park and leaking through Sutro Tower. With one violent shake of the earth, the skyscraper would burst, millions of little glass fragments of the city in their reflections like an eclipse of moths with blinking-eyed wings.
I felt a slap on my shoulder. I looked to Anne who remained in the posture of a debutant waiting for the butler to remove her fur coat. She coughed, then requested again, “I shan’t ask you again, my dear; for if you could please fetch me a cocktail. If I remain sober any longer, I shall be required to engage my thoughts with utmost clarity, and we can’t have that happen, can we?”
I snapped into character, “Why I wouldn’t wish the burden on my greatest enemy. Not even the slanderous playboy, The Duke of Westworth, would I wish that upon.” I then leaned toward Anne, kissed her hand and whispered, “Is this role-play, perchance, lead to any risqué activity?”
Anne likewise leaned in and whispered back, “The only risk you run is not getting me a cocktail posthaste because if I have to listen to these pill-popping suburban queens talk anymore about their horned-up drunk teens’ prom dates I will forever soil the rich history and fine reputation of this symphony hall.”
“How will you do that?”
“Oh, there are very simple ways. Tricks inherited down from the sisterhood of womankind. Tricks that could alter the integrity of a place quicker than you’d imagine. Tricks that are rarely used but effective beyond all measure.”
She slipped a ten-dollar bill in the pocket of my food stained sport coat, winked, and patted my ass. “Off we go now.”
At the table inside was a trio of older ladies laughing with other patrons of the symphony hall. As I edged my way through the line, one of their condor eyes landed on me, dilated, and then glanced onward to the decorative individual next to me. I speculated the patron had more grey hair than cologne, but hadn’t the data to verify. The man looked at me before asking for two glasses of wine, to which the lady passed over my shoulder moments later. I stood there until my presence could longer be ignored without some objective act of exclusionary behavior.
She then put on her mask of congeniality and pretended to have just acknowledged me. “And what would you like, son?” She was previously addressing the other men as sir: poverty equals immaturity.
“Can I get two cocktails?” I ask, suppressing heavy snark.
“What cocktails would you like?”
“Um, what do you have?”
Her mask of congeniality lost its luster. She proceeded to list maybe twenty cocktail names, all of which sounded like people I never met or activities I’d never do. I was a fraud at some dinner party.
“Two Coronas, please.”
She slammed two on the table as I handed her two ten-dollar bills. She gave the one ten-dollar bill back to me and moved on to the next customer. I stood waiting for the change before realizing that was the price of the beers, or maybe the one she has determined.
Emerging back on the outdoor portion of the mezzanine, Anne watched me as I approached in shame.
She smiled and leaned her arm on my shoulder, “What I wanted anyway.”
I looked over the edge of the balcony at the street below as she asked, “Long distance to fall, huh?”
“I was just making sure you hadn’t thrown any equestrians over.”
We drank outdoors by ourselves as the remainder of the attendees began filling up the venue. Through the windows of the symphony hall, the privileged gathered en masse. I heard the cartoon clink of coins and a vague number added to the gross price of the room. Some couples would approach the door before looking out and changing their mind. I expressed to Anne that it was because of us but Anne refined it to just me.
In fact, it wasn’t just the concentration of wealth in the room that felt so foreign to me at this point. I turn around to the apartment building towering for what-seemed-like fifty stories tall. In every apartment, those that hadn’t had the curtains drawn, you could catch a view of the bay. In fact, the panorama of the bay was blocked by this tower and my only view was through this prism of wealth. I looked back toward the attendees in the hall and observed the cocktails, purses, buckled shoes, and pressed wool clothing items. Most of their facial hair was styled and those who didn’t manage to have pristine haircuts somehow looked even more lucrative than those who presented themselves that way.
Anne was leaning on the edge of the balcony and jutting her chin into the oncoming wall of fog without the faintest hint of intimidation. As the fog barreled toward us in its slow-motion mass of gentle violence. I questioned what I’d have to give up tomorrow, what I’d have to give up the whole next week, so I didn’t have to ask her for money to drive back down to Santa Cruz after the concert. The whole endeavor was to treat Anne, and, it was a re-gift from my stepmom who got the ticket from a friend of hers. I thought of what Anne had already paid for us to enjoy the ride up here: the Red Bulls, the burritos, and now ten dollars for the beer. This was supposed to be my treat. So, I glanced back inside the hall looking for someone to blame.
The lights flickered as the main doors open to the concert hall. Anne and I entered the indoor portion deciding to wait before joining the funneling of herds. We were debating whether to down another beer when we turned to see an old college acquaintance Jared Baker and his partner who I haven’t met. We stood there with the reticent agreement of collective regret.
Jared had always disliked me for what I assumed to be some homosocial jealousy. In college there was a DJ named Felix who was the silverback of a rave scene. He and I bonded early freshman year and remained close emotionally despite my disinterest in raves and electronic music. Jared always harbored a frustration, wanting to be closer with the king of the scene. It was just social climber radiation that somehow contaminated me in his pursuit to the top.
“What are you guys doing here?” Jared asked, perpetuating the feeling that we had crashed a party we weren’t supposed to attend.
Anne remained quiet, as did I. I figured she was weighing up the things she wanted to say and their consequences.
“Trying to find someone’s daddy,” I answered, rubbing Anne’s back like she was a lost kid.
The only person less amused by my joke than Jared was his partner.
He answered, “Just kind of shocked that you like classical music.”
Anne nearly interrupted and held out her hand to Jared’s partner, “Hi, I’m Anne by the way.”
She made a passable fake grin and didn’t respond. Jared tapped his elbow into her shoulder and whispered, “Bev.”
“My name’s…” She responded with a wide glare.
“Is it Bev perchance?” I asked.
“How did you know?” Anne played on.
“I’m really good with names,” I joked realizing just then that maybe there was more than a social reason why he purportedly hated us.
I expected them to get along on their merry way, but to no avail. There they remained more than ready to engage in a tortuous smallest talk. Even worse, I was going to have to keep it going. I asked, “So, you live here in SF now right?”
His eyelids dipped in the slightest way that pretentious people do when they get to humble brag. He regaled himself onto me and whoever else was in the metaphorical splash-zone, “Yea, so I’ve been on this internship for…eh, I doubt you’d know. Let’s just say medical research at UCSF. The professor is really impressed with my work and it’d be a shock if I’m not offered a position once the internship is over. Honestly, I haven’t even put much effort into it. It’s easy, just comes naturally, I guess. Been mostly working on my new mix. I’m finding some crushing transitions and drops. It’s honestly going to blow your mind. I fucking mixed Prodigy with the broom scene in Fantasia. It’s almost syncopated perfectly.”
As his tribute to himself continues, Anne informed me she’s going to get us beers. Anne attempted to take Bev with her, but she seemed resistant or oblivious. Anne shrugged to me as I gave her the don’t you dare leave eyes.
I tuned back on the monologue as he asked, “…So, what are you up to? Still in Santa Cruz I imagine.”
“Yeah, we are in Santa Cruz. But we are moving in a month.”
“Are you moving here? It’s difficult to afford. I wouldn’t recommend you guys, just because it really isn’t affordable, you know. Unless you have a good job. And you are…”
“Imports, exports,” I responded.
“Is that selling weed?”
“By the way, have you stayed in touch with Felix?”
The lights flickered once more indicating that the show was about to begin. I looked around for Anne, desperate to get away. Jared asked for my ticket and we learned that we were only a few rows apart. I rolled my eyes and sighed quietly as Anne showed up near the door.
“Where’s the beer?” I asked.
“They weren’t selling because you can’t take alcohol in.”
“So, you went to the bathroom?”
“No, just walked around.”
“One of us has got to stay sane. We can’t both end up in jail tonight. And I’m the one who has enough for bail.”
“Fair play,” I whispered to her, as I waved to Jared and Bev walking toward their seats.
Our seats were the first row of the highest balcony. The height was dizzying.
“Nose-bleeds,” I remarked.
“You nervous?” Anne asked as she placed her hand on my shaking knee.
“Didn’t know they sold tickets for a seat in the Matterhorn. If there’s an earthquake we are fu…” An older lady in the corner looked up at me, I finished, “..fine.”
The lights dimmed and the musicians walked out to applause. First was the ordinary retinue, the symphony gang emerged from the wooden archway carrying their respective instruments, toward their respective places in respective order. All the likely suspects were accounted for: trumpets, violins, violas, cellos, baritones, basses, percussion, and Mr. Trouble himself, the oboe.
In their half circle they sat, adjusting their chairs and instruments before a chaotic yet beatific flurry of them began to tune their instruments. Discordant on occasion and harmonious in another, I would try to follow as the mood of sound compromised a 440 sound frequency. It invoked an image of a sonic dawn. All the instruments waking: deep oranges, purples, and reds flowing. Hatching, becoming-with their soundings. They were interpreting a setting for the first time that day. The first violinist then conducted the band to tune in unison. She pointed to the french horn and then addressed the rest of them. Then, seemingly satisfied, the first violinist took her seat as the lights dimmed even more.
“It’s overplayed in my opinion, but still a classic,” I explained.
“You should ask if they want to start with a comedy set.”
A young man in his early forties entered stage right from the wooden arch to significant applause. He had the long conductor’s coat on and the long flowing conductor’s hair. He bowed several times, stood, pretended like he was surprised to see us there, bowed again, and laughed to himself.
“Enough with the pandering,” Anne whispered.
The conductor stood on the podium and nodded toward the symphony who regarded him fondly in return. Shall we dance, he could’ve said and it would’ve been appropriate. He lifted his hands and one of the percussion players walked over to a table revealing a MacAir. He breathed out and closed his eyes. As the conductor lowered his hands to engage the percussionist pressed a button on the laptop. What followed were metallic rain drop sounds. The rest of the symphony sat with their instruments in resting position as the metallic raindrops continued to fall.
I looked to Anne who shrugged her shoulders. A thunderous sustained bass note emitted from the laptop causing a few yelps of surprise from the audience. I closed my eyes and felt I was suspended in the ocean, the sawing sonorous note of a cybernetic whale with the collision of a wave above. I opened my eyes to check if the oboist had dropped his instrument. But, he must have been well rehearsed on the tidal boom from the laptop. I’m sure, though I knew it was coming, that I’d be frightened every time. I would have to attach the sweaty oboe to my cumber-bun. But, he remained unnerved as he continued to lay down that eventual hot oboe track.
After what could only be described as an unnecessary amount of time, the rest of the symphony was allowed to join in on the fun. You knew they were gonna have to earn their pay at some point. The whole piece seemed to elevate once they started playing though. The composition was slow: melodies and contrapuntal never exceeding eighth notes. I would’ve found it soothing if it wasn’t for its atonal tendencies. The tension was even more uncomfortable due to its longevity.
I remembered reading a few days before about the conductor/composer. He was some guy from Serbia and in his forties, now living in San Francisco. He created the soundtrack for a few movies I hadn’t recognized. Nonetheless, it was interesting to learn that there were still people out there trying to be composers. I wondered what the competition must have been like. Did he walk into an office somewhere with a pile of sheet music announcing that he’s got a piece for the symphony? The mean old man who’s been staring out a window into the courtyard of a university taps his fingers, twists in his chair, and raises an eyebrow.
“A symphony you say? And, you composed it?”
The Serbian composer, Ivan Bosnac, is nervous. He nods his head and says something that wouldn’t be translatable because it was supposed to in English. The mean old man observes the charts. He reads them again, looks up, reads them, and looks up again.
“Well…” he repeats. “Well, well, well…”
“Is it terrible?”
“So it appears you’ll be using a laptop you say. And something here about slate broom wall plates? I’m afraid I don’t understand,” The mean old man ponders.
“It’s…a wall…and I broom…well, not I…he brooms…”
“Enough said, I will sponsor your endeavor here.”
“You will sponsor me!”
“Why the hell not…”
Ivan skips for joy out of the room thinking that the mean old man will sponsor his citizenship. A few months later human resources clears up the miscommunication. Ivan will have his composition played by the San Francisco Symphony but he’ll still have to work on getting that green card.
The baritone swells were beginning to do the trick. I felt the invisible weight of them heaving into the cavern of my torso. My sight peeled slightly and the little spirits of light poured out into my field of vision and levitated there like pollen. Phosphenes usually meant I was dehydrated or ate the wrong type of chocolate. But I considered for a second if all the genomes of bacteria, fungi, protists, and such were staging a coup of my body. I mean, they make up for ninety percent of our cells.
And then came the slate broom wall plate. The percussionist that was dj-ing took a broom and gently petted the metal sheet in some form of syncopation that wasn’t there or I couldn’t comprehend.
The whole performance, when I absorbed the vibe, rendered a sense of dystopia. The electronic raindrops had a toxicity to them. Their decay felt erosive. The muted thunder seemed to be a storm passed. The damage was done. The contamination was left.
The drama of the dystopian raindrops reached its finality in the way T.S. Elliot would’ve wanted: the whimpering of my stomach. There was a pause as a pregnant silence pervaded the room. My stomach moaned. Anne suppressed her laughter. Ivan turned around. I was terrified he was going to look at me. My stomach groaned again. Then, he bowed as the audience erupted in applause. My stomach went wild howling. Someone handed him a bouquet of flowers and he bowed several times to a half-standing crowd before remembering the band and offering them some of his positive attention as well.
“Hungry?” Anne asked.
“I’m dizzy hungry,” I said. “The chips are like fifteen bucks.”
“You already assessed the snack prices?”
“Cookies twelve, garden salad twenty, oranges five.”
“We don’t have that do we?”
“We do, but we wouldn’t make it back home.”
“Gas tank empty?”
“Oi ve,” she concluded. “I’ll try to find you something.”
And there, somehow I was standing in the mezzanine as wafts of perfumes and colognes nearly sent me into a coma. My vision blurred as older men and women glided by in indeterminate motion. I eventually made it to a second porch with a veranda of the opera hall where my mom once took us to watch the Nutcracker. Every year she’d drag us there and every year it was even more intolerable. I thought I might be able to develop a sense of appreciation for the infantile wish fulfillments of Tchaikovsky’s work. But I wasn’t going to readily volunteer my time soon.
Sure enough, Jared and Bev found me. Why? I started hearing those toxic raindrops in my head again. I get it now, they represented the languid trickle of chagrin dysfunction. I didn’t understand what compelled them to persist the mutual torture of our conversation. Sometimes, isn’t it worth the preciousness of a second to acknowledge that you won’t get along with everybody you meet?
Everyone, including Bev and Jared, was a sea creature chewing down my sorry floating carcass as it suspended there in the tide. Soon, I’d decompose, fragments of my matter disseminated among the sentients. Dust of me immersed in the medium of wind or current. The little floaters were back. The phosphenes that hovered in the air, bobbing laterally like moonlit gnats. They reminded me of the floaters in my eyes detected on a clear day staring into the sky with childhood eyes. Those too are bacteria, swimming in the eyes.
I was starving.
The lights flickered and Anne appeared ushering me to my seat. We sat down and Anne placed a few crackers into my hand. I held them, losing the ability to discern the next action. She hinted that I should eat them. I nodded and placed the salted dry bread in my mouth. She then gave me water and it seemed to flush away some of the phosphenes floating around my ocular field.
“I’ve never heard a Beethoven in person,” Anne commented.
“Where?” I responded.
Lights dimmed and a new conductor, with much less vim and vigor, appeared from backstage in unison with the rest of the orchestra. They sat in their allotted spots and tuned briefly before a pause awoke with the lifting of the conductor’s arms. Then his arms dropped and I felt a sudden rush of water lunge toward my chest as they played. I was thrown back into my seat. Ribbons of light rushed by in glissades and flashes of robust blades. Staccato, legato, crescendos, decrescendos, trills, contrapuntal and lead melodies, all fleshed out into currents and vacuums in the medium of water. Uninhibited now, I traversed unfettered the expanse of this infinite liquescent dimension. From horizon to horizon, from nadir to zenith, I could find destination, discovery, and liberation. Bioluminescence in fields of distant plumage, twilit mirages of jellyfish and sea flora, whales motion activating a suboceanic zephyr, angelic chordal bands of phantom marine vibration. I felt released. I felt vindicated. Go escape! You are free now. As the momentum increased I heard my transcendental call. I felt the gravity tugging on my spirit to absolve into the water.
There was a tug on my shoulder. I was thrust back into my seat. Eyes from the balcony were staring at me. I was gasping for air.
Anne rested her hand on my shoulder. My heart was racing. I looked around to see the faces of the audience returning their gaze to the orchestra. A few cellphones were sheathed. What had I done? Luckily no one but those in the proximity of the balcony noticed.
The first movement was just about to end and it was time for a brief intermission. As the final notes concluded, the conductor lifted his arms and a phenomenal experience occurred. Anne turned to me. We tried to retain our laughter as hundreds of gastric noises emitted from the audience who’ve been holding back their own concert of gasses, coughs, and sneezes.
I stared off the balcony.
“That was moving.”
Music can hold enormous power in memories and experiences, transporting us instantly to an age, location, or person. What sonic joys, mysteries, disbelief, and clarity have you experienced? Identify songs of influence in your life and explore them like variations on a theme, melding syntax and song structure, recalling the seriousness or levity that accompanies. Whether it’s an account of when a specific song first entered your life, the process of learning to play a song, teaching someone a song, experiencing the same song in different places as it weaves through your life, unbelievable radio timing, sharing songs with those in need, tracking the passing down of songs, creative song analysis, music as politics, etc, I am interested in those ineffable moments and welcoming submissions of your own variations on a theme, as drawn from your life’s soundtrack. Please email submissions to email@example.com and keep an eye out for others’ Variations.
**(“song” is a broad phrase: could be a pop song, a traditional tune, a symphony, commercial jingles, a hummed lullaby, 2nd grade recorder class horror stories, etc)**
Daniel Talamantes is a writer from the Central Valley of California. His work has been published in the Elderly, Entropy, Soft Punk, Paragon Press, The Write Launch, SF Chronicle, among others.